A Simple Mind

Earlier this week, a childhood friend encouraged me to write about the shocking events that had just transpired at our Capitol. As a proud American and current resident of Washington, DC, the events of January 6, 2021, filled my heart with anger, disappointment, disgust, and rage. As much as I wanted to share how I felt, I struggled to find words that would unite instead of divide. I concluded there were none, for we had arrived at that place because one side would not listen to the other. Then everything changed.

That evening I watched a video that overwhelmed me with love, awe, and gratitude. In an instant, the inspiring story washed away the feelings that had consumed me earlier in the day. As my eyes frequently welled with tears, I was reminded of an important lesson I hope to remember each day going forward.

In 1979, Derek Paravicini was born prematurely in England. The procedures that saved his life left him blind and severely disabled. His family was understandably shocked when they heard Derek, who was 3 years old at the time, playing a hymn on the piano which he had heard earlier that day in church. The story I watched was about Derek’s life since, and the inspiration he has spread throughout the world.

Derek isn’t just an incredible pianist. His mind connects to music in a way that virtually no other has or likely ever will. He can play any song he has heard only once, in any key, and in any style such as jazz, ragtime, or classical – on demand with no preparation. Even the most accomplished pianist needs to read music to play a piece in a different key for the first time, even one they know from memory. Derek does all of this immediately in his mind – no music at all. 

For most of us, listening to beautiful music is an emotional experience, but watching Derek, who is now in his early 40s, is so much more moving. While Derek’s fingers can play Rachmaninoff, they cannot fasten a button or work a zipper. Derek has performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in concert with a symphony orchestra, but he doesn’t know how old he is. He can perform Bach, Beethoven and any pop song he’s ever heard, but when asked to raise three fingers, pushes both hands into the air, and in the innocent British accent of a child proudly says, “I can do this.” No one understands why certain parts of his brain do not function like most of ours or how it exceeds them so incredibly in another. What is clear is that Derek communicates with other humans through music, and his primary message to them is one of love. His communication skills have developed enough over the years that even away from the piano his love for people shines through, compelling Derek to ask people he’s just met if they will come visit him or when he will get to see them again. 

Words cannot communicate the emotions I felt watching the story of this musical savant. But, perhaps I can explain the lesson it taught me on the eve of January 6th. I don’t understand how Derek’s mind works, but I am convinced he is incapable of feeling anger, hatred, or judgement. For some unknown reason, God gave him the miraculous ability to communicate with other humans only through music. When I see the joy and happiness he brings to people through the only medium of communication he has, it makes me cognizant of the incredibly heavy burden of choice. Unlike Derek, our minds have the ability to choose anger over compassion or hate over love. Proverbs tells us “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If we consume a diet of hateful, judgmental, angry news, we will eventually find it is how and what we communicate with others. Derek’s lesson to all of us is that our world is an infinitely more wonderful and livable place when we choose love, compassion, and kindness. 

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